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Editorial: After court ruling, nonpartisan maps closer than ever

You’ve heard this story before: A judge has struck down a legislative district map, saying it must be redrawn for the 2020 elections.

Judges in Wake County Superior Court on Tuesday ruled that “carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, dictate election outcomes in a number of legislative districts.” That means the maps dictate control of the N.C. General Assembly, judges said.

“Voters are not freely choosing their representatives. Rather, representatives are choosing their voters,” judges wrote. “It is not the will of the people that is fairly ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering. Rather, it is the will of the map drawers that prevails.”

What the ruling means for Rowan County representation is unclear, except that it’s time for new maps to be drawn quickly. The court gave the legislature just two weeks.

Meanwhile, in just a few months, primaries for the legislature, Congress, governor and president will be on the ballot. And the court said in its ruling that it reserves the right to reschedule the March 2020 primary elections if needed. So, the date on which voters will choose their legislators is unclear, too.

If there’s any certainty, it’s that Rep. Harry Warren and Sen. Carl Ford, if they decide to run for re-election, will likely represent some part of Rowan County after the 2020 elections. Warren flipped to representing the southeast part of the county after the 2018 elections. Ford was double-bunked with Rep. Larry Pittman in court-ordered redistricting in 2017. And, instead of running against a fellow Republican legislator in 2018, Ford ran for an open state Senate seat.

Pittman, of Cabarrus County, and Rep. Julia Howard, of Mocksville, became representatives of part of Rowan, too, after the 2018 elections. But their districts could easily shift elsewhere with new maps.

Senate Leader Phil Berger said Tuesday that Republicans wouldn’t appeal the ruling, likely ending long, dizzying years of court rulings pertaining to maps drawn for Congress and the N.C. General Assembly.

“We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” Berger said in an emailed statement. “Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on.”

The second portion of Berger’s statement is spot on. While Democrats and Republicans have both gerrymandered for their own benefit, the flurry of court decisions in recent years has left voters wondering “who’s my representative?” entirely too often. And special elections and frequently altered districts make things harder for those contemplating their first run for public office.

That’s why it was good to see Berger say the Republican-led legislature plans to follow the court’s instruction and adopt a nonpartisan map.

The next step also should involve creating an independent commission to draw district lines moving forward. And the legislature might start with a good proposal introduced by Warren earlier this year — the N.C. FAIR State and Congressional Districts Act, which would have 11 members, with balanced representation from both major parties.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly now has the chance to do our state a great service. It shouldn’t pass up the opportunity.

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